Qualifications, issues for city hopefuls

January 29, 1997

Bob Maginnis

Editorial Page Editor

Friday, Jan. 24 was the deadline for signing up for this year's Hagerstown mayor and council races, and when Saturday rolled around, there were six vying to be the city's chief executive and nine seeking a seat on the five-member council. The March 11 primary is less than eight weeks away, so let's talk now about the issues that will be important. They include:

- Candidates' experience. I want to know whether canddiates have ever drawn up a budget for anything other than their own households, or whether they've managed anything bigger than their own checkbooks. (When I asked the same question in 1981, Councilman Lew Metzner, then a mayoral hopeful, said that the people who came to him for legal services put the management of their lives in his hands.)

The question is still relevant 16 years later because managing one's own life may be difficult enough, but it's simple compared to the task of managing a group of people in an enterprise that turns a profit. How, for example, do you decide which job applicant will be an asset, and which one will carelessly run your expensive truck into a tree?


Government cannot be run strictly like a business, but unless the people running it have developed the instincts for choosing good people they can trust, and for knowing when they're being sold a pig in a poke, the taxpayers will suffer and the city will not progress.

- Community service. Past experience with volunteer organizations is important, whether it's with churches, service clubs or the fire/rescue service. So much of what it takes for government to be successful depends elected officials' ability to persuade people who are not their employees to go along with their plans. Those who have never learned how gently volunteers and other potential unpaid allies must be treated will start their terms behind the 8-Ball.

- Breadth of vision. In 1997, the Hagerstown mayor and council can no longer be content to fix potholes and review bids on new police cars. We need some members who can look at what other cities of our size are doing on issues like housing, recreation and economic development, and bring the best of those ideas back home.

It is also time for elected officials to take it upon themselves to generate some enthusiasm among citizens about what could be, instead of standing by quietly as the nay-sayers trot out (for the hundredth time) those tired twin laments: "That'll never work here" and "It will never be as good as it used to be."

Now, to the issues:

- Downtown Hagerstown. Plenty of money has been spent on the city's core in the past 20 years, but with the exception of a some upscale clothing stores, some nice niche businesses like Carol & Company and a handful of nice restaurants, the end of the rainbow is not yet in sight. For a long while the emphasis was on bricks-and-mortar projects with no recognition that tourism, jobs and better housing are also part of the answer. Given that there is not an unlimited supply of money, what's the best way to proceed?

- Housing and the neighborhoods. After the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond's study found that a lower-than-average percentage of people in the city own their own homes, Mayor Steve Sager said turning that around would be a priority if he's re-elected. But the neighborhoods need more than low-cost financing to prosper. They also need aggressive code enforcement, so that people who are actively trying to improve their properties aren't discouraged by those who put no priority on maintenance.

- Economic development. Look around the city and you'll see that there are plenty of sites available for small-to-medium businesses. Legislation now being developed in Annapolis will encourage revitalization of older areas, and other bills will limit the liability of developers who re-use industrial sites that may have been contaminated at one time. However, Washington County government has been without an economic development director for a year. Can the county be pushed to move, or should the city go ahead on it own?

- Tourism. On this one, see the question at the end of the last section. If the county continues to drag its feet on the reorganization that's been proposed, should the city make a bid for a bigger share of the room-tax money, or push for legislation to reinvigorate the agency? And remember, "wait and see" is not an option.

Those are my thoughts. If you'd like to share yours, address them to City Election Issues, Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741

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